Saturday, July 21, 2007

Stewards of Sport Need a Lesson From the Pit Bosses

Sports of The Times
July 22, 2007


The pit boss sees all on the casino floor as a trained trouble spotter amid this high-roller’s paradise where the Mirage is a hotel, not a way of self-policing.

Is someone cheating the system? Is there suspicious activity? The pit boss knows.

There are also security chiefs roaming each pro sports league whose business it is to be the nosy neighbor, the Gladys Kravitz of their universes.

Is an insider on a shady path? Has one of their own drifted wayward? Well, they are apparently the last to know.

These internal cops are wearing costume badges these days. They have seen nothing and caught no one before the integrity of their leagues has been breached by one scandal after another.

The feds are the only enforcers with any snooping powers, having materialized with the ubiquity of Zelig on the league scene. They are serial spoilsports by trade. They are the sleuths who are chasing Barry Bonds as he pursues Hank Aaron and the authorities who illuminated the sadistic underworld of dogfighting through an indictment of Michael Vick.

The feds are on the scent of the N.B.A. now, investigating whether the veteran referee Tim Donaghy shaved points to fix games that he or his associates bet on in a case that threatens to disgrace Commissioner David Stern if it unravels the core of the league’s credibility.

Was Stern clueless or duplicitous when, for much of the playoffs, he defended N.B.A. referees to the point of deification after an academic study found that white and black officials blew whistles at different rates against white and black players?

His reaction was more revealing than the analysis: No group of employees in the world is more parsed, inspected and scrutinized than our dutiful refs, Stern crowed to every microphone within his reach.

Now each sound bite rings like a shameless pre-emptive P.R. strike by Stern when the F.B.I.’s investigation of Donaghy has been going on for months. Now it seems that Stern’s impeccable stat geeks couldn’t — or wouldn’t — detect a statistical anomaly of a referee if an odd number bit them in their hard drive.

What a commissioner doesn’t know — whether it’s selective naïveté or true ignorance — can ruin him.

Somehow, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell never heard a whisper about a dogfighting subculture that investigators of the illegal operations say exists among athletes and, authorities contend, has long enveloped Vick.

Against all evidence, Commissioner Bud Selig claimed ignorance of a blooming steroid era in baseball even after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa wrapped their biceps around Roger Maris’s record in 1998, even after the Balco raid of 2003.

The lapse of oversight is epidemic. Odd how that these pristine leagues have not dared to rub shoulders with Las Vegas by relocating a franchise to the Strip even though they could learn a lot from its what-happens-here-stays-here philosophy of self-inspection.

Any strange swing on a betting line. Any aberrant pattern of wagering. Any whiff of an irregularity. Any rumors of a fix. And the Nevada regulators — think of them as pit bosses of the state’s desert floor — act to stop the problem before it mushrooms into an industry crisis.

“In my old life as a criminal defense lawyer, I represented a lot of alleged fixers,” Mayor Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas said Friday. “And they all got in trouble as a result of the casinos spotting something that was unusual. They called in the gaming regulators. They called in the F.B.I. A wiretap went out, and the culprits were caught. Without Nevada looking at it, I don’t know how those activities could be prevented. That’s why I say, as far as I’m concerned, we’re a blessing.”

Goodman submitted a pitch for a team to the N.B.A. last spring even after a rowdy All-Star weekend in Vegas left some in the community soured on the league.

He still longs for a team to unite his ever-expanding city — and, in fact, Las Vegas deserves serious consideration from all leagues — even though the N.B.A. has found itself immersed in point-shaving allegations.

To others along the Strip, the N.B.A. is in danger of becoming damaged goods. By late afternoon Friday, as word spread about the F.B.I.’s investigation into Donaghy, one sports-betting operator mentioned in an aside that in this anything-goes town, there was only one real taboo: point-shaving.

Imagine the N.B.A. with an unseemly image Vegas wouldn’t embrace.

The feds have the league twisting — again. They are also the investigators who discovered a tax-evasion scheme that left several N.B.A. referees facing indictments after they were charged with exchanging first-class tickets for coach and keeping the change.

And yet the league never detected this cheating gene within. What good is a security force if it doesn’t safeguard a league’s image? It’s a mirage — not the hotel, merely the illusion.



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